A very happy birthday to a classic star with a golden voice! Though best known as the wide-eyed ingenue who rocketed to fame as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Judy Garland brought her triple-threat talent to some of the greatest films of the twentieth century.
From the trolley scene in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) to “A Couple of Swells” in Easter Parade with Fred Astaire, many of Garland’s most beloved roles came out of her frequent collaboration with choreographer and director, Charles Walters, including her most iconic musical scene: “Get Happy” from Summer Stock (1950).
In Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, media archivist Brent Phillips goes behind the scenes of Walters’ life and films. He explores not only the director’s work—like Easter Parade, Summer Stock, and Lili (1953)—but also Walters’ life and associations with stars like Garland, Lucille Ball, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly, and how he navigated the industry as an openly gay man.
To celebrate a partnership that keeps us smiling, dancing, and happy to this day, we’re bringing you an excerpt from Charles Walters, detailing the behind-the-scenes story of “Get Happy”:
“Get Happy,” from Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance by Brent Phillips
Photography neared completion in late January 1950, with Walters running “on nothing but coffee and cigarettes.” Some of the dancers were leaving for other assignments, and a premature wrap party was organized. . .
Judy’s work on Summer Stock was deemed complete in early February—after two and a half months of filming—and she headed to Santa Barbara to rest. Meanwhile, Walters oversaw editing of the picture, and it soon became obvious that a Garland payoff was missing. “She was the star, but she never had a star turn in the final show,” he pointed out. Judy solved the problem herself, as he recalled, telling him, “I’ll give you a week. I want Harold Arlen’s ‘Get Happy,’ and I want to wear the costume from the ‘Mr. Monotony’ number cut from Easter Parade. And I want [you] to do it.” The director admitted the request seemed “a nice little challenge,” and he was pleasantly stunned when “she returned two weeks later, thin as a string.”
“Get Happy,” a quasi-spiritual from 1930, had been famously introduced by Ruth Etting as the first act finale of Ruth Selwyn’s 9:15 Revue. Thought Chuck, “What the hell am I gonna do with it? What does it say? What does it mean?” His answers to those questions proved iconic: a spare, sophisticated staging with Garland as a cool jazz vamp and accompanied by eight equally smooth male dancers.
“Chuck came into rehearsal knowing what he wanted,” recalls enlisted dancer John Angelo. “He showed us our part—and he did Judy’s part.” Time was of the essence, but that didn’t daunt Walters. Angelo continues, “I would describe Chuck as soft but strong. Often he was camp! He’d say to us guys, ‘Oh, c’mon girls, let’s get it together.’ ” They had three days to set, and, per Walters, Judy rehearsed for one. “Chuck was what I call an ‘ape-er,’ ” said Angelo. “He could ‘ape’ anyone. So when Judy would come in, she’d say, ‘Chuck, would you mind running through it with the boys,’ and he’d do it—and you thought he was Judy Garland! He did everything.”
To prepare his star for “Get Happy,” Walters gave Judy the mental image of Lena Horne. “This got her away from ‘me dancing,’ ” he explained, “and she ‘felt’ Lena: so cool!— snap!—push the hat! It worked beautifully.”
Garland pre-recorded the number on March 15. By contrast, Kelly and Silvers pre-recorded “Heavenly Music” on March 6 and filmed the following week, which belies decades of later claims that “Get Happy” was completed months after Summer Stock wrapped. Carpenter returned to watch “Get Happy” go before the cameras, he recalled, and “after that . . . I had to go back and do a lead-in for Kelly’s newspaper dance, so [he and Judy] had equal time on screen.”(Gene’s bravura squeaky board solo kept production open until mid-April.)
The three-minute “Get Happy” was earmarked for a two-day shoot, and a trim Judy took obvious delight in the crew’s whistles as she came onto the soundstage. After her first takes, however, Walters told her she seemed too tentative, and the discouraged Garland retreated to her dressing room. Her fearful director followed. “I hated to say it that way,” he ventured, “but . . . it was your first crack at it.” Judy remained silent, prompting Chuck to return to the set, kicking himself: “Me and my big mouth!” Garland soon re-emerged, heading straight for her critic. Hands on her hips, she quipped, “You know, Chuck, if you had any class, you would use that travel clock the crew gave you.” It was a classic Garland non sequitur. “All right, fellas!” she announced. “Let’s do this.”
In essence an afterthought, “Get Happy” was swiftly accomplished and found a definitive interpretation. Walters requested but did not receive screen credit, yet in retrospect the sequence became such a classic template for M-G-M musicals that the credit spoke for itself.
Despite the holdups, Summer Stock was completed in fifty days at a cost of $2,024,848, just $43,000 over budget. The additional costs were primarily incurred by the film’s added finale sequences and Kelly’s newspaper dance—none of which figured into Pasternak’s original estimates. When released in August 1950, the movie was dubbed “delightful summer entertainment” by The Hollywood Reporter. “Walters’ direction is light, airy, and full of fun. He makes the rural locale count for beguiling humor, and his approach to characterizations is in the best musical comedy manner.”
The musical played to capacity at New York’s Capitol Theater and recorded 70,608 admissions over Labor Day weekend—the best business the theater had experienced for that holiday period since 1946. Future American playwright Edward Albee, then twenty-two, was among the crowds, and fifteen years later he would write: “When Garland finished singing [‘Get Happy’], the audience watching the film was breathless for a moment and then, to a person, burst into sustained applause. . . . Nothing has instructed and gratified me more than the time she convinced a bunch of afternoon movie watchers that a strip of celluloid was the real thing.” Such reports were a particular validation for Garland. “When Judy gives of herself,” Chuck once told journalist Erskine Johnson without hesitation, “there’s some of her blood on the film.”
The troubled production (“a blur,” in Walters’s later memory) remains one of the director’s most personal movies. His shrewd modification of the backstage musical blueprint and his graceful ability to balance and contrast emotions in song and dance would encourage critic McVay to conclude, “If [Minnelli’s] The Band Wagon is the definitive Hollywood musical about ‘putting on a show,’ then Summer Stock must rank as runner-up. Yet in the ‘You Wonderful You’ duologue and the bouquet presentation scene [on opening night], it strikes more loving and touching show business chords than anything in the Band Wagon script.”
Summer Stock routinely has been dismissed as the fallback film Garland made after losing Annie Get Your Gun— and as Kelly’s outmoded musical sandwiched between the innovative On the Town and An American in Paris. Against those pictures, the simple rural love story of Jane Falbury and Joe Ross indeed pales in import and size. But, under Walters’s eloquent care, it unquestionably conquers in heart.